Of course, little did I know until recently that I actually first "saw" B't X via one of its Newtype Magazine posters making a cameo in M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable, years before it first became officially available North America... So maybe me becoming a Kurumada fan through B't X was just my destiny.
Therefore, when Illumitoon Entertainment announced in 2006 that it would be releasing the B't X anime on DVD here in North America, I was ecstatic. So imagine my disappointment in 2007 when Ilumitoon's first release, Beet the Vandel Buster Volume 1, came with "dubtitles" in place of proper subtitles (which weren't even timed to the Japanese audio!), an English dub that jammed in its own music, & the original Japanese OP & ED sequences being tossed aside as extras with video encoding so poor that I think I could have done a better job back then. Granted, B't X's first DVD didn't have that last problem, but the other two were still there, and with a sad heart I refused to buy it. To no surprise, Illumitoon stopped putting out DVDs before the year was over, with one of the final releases being B't X Volume 2, which was at least a proper release with accurate subtitles (plus a silly "from Masami Kurumada" on the top of both the cover & the DVD itself); it was too late by then, though. Then, in 2008, it was announced that B't X & AM Driver's dubs would be made available on-demand via The Anime Network, just for people to eventually realize that Illumitoon only dubbed up to Episode 14 for both shows. Since then, TokyoPop showed one last hint of a heart by finishing up the B't X manga in late 2010, following a two-year hiatus, and after that I pretty much gave up hope for B't X ever being given another chance here... Until 2016, that is.
At AnimeFest that year, Anime Midstream announced that it would releasing B't X on DVD in North America, complete with a brand-new English dub, and said release finally happened just last month in the form of a complete TV series boxset; in fact, it even became the #4 Best-Selling DVD release at Right Stuf for a week or two! So I think it's time for me to revisit the anime that started my path to becoming a fan of Masami Kurumada for the first time in roughly eight years, and see if it still makes me feel the same way it did back in 2004. Also, I want to see what Anime Midstream & Sound Cadence Studios brought to the table with this new English dub, & I even decided to buy those two Illumitoon DVDs so that I can finally see what the original dub was like for the first eight episodes. Battle Gear... ON!!!!
Teppei Takamiya is heading to Beijing to finally see his older brother Kotaro, a robotics prodigy who left to go to school in Berlin five years ago, who will be showing off his research on AI that behaves like "actual intelligence". While the brothers do meet up, Kotaro is later kidnapped by the mysterious Machine Empire, who want to use the elder Takamiya to help finish work on Rafaello, the Machine Emperor's ultimate "B't", which are animal-based robots that have their own take on "actual intelligence" & run off of the blood of their sole "donor". Teppei manages to hitch a ride on the giant wasp B't that kidnapped Kotaro, taking him all the way to The Area, the Machine Empire's secret base in the Gobi Desert. After an encounter with Lt. Metal Face in the junkyard, though, Teppei bleeds amongst the scrap metal, accidentally reawakening X, the B't partner of Karen of the West. She is a former "Spiritual Guardian" of the Empire who escaped years ago, after finding out the truth behind Rafaello, & wound up training Teppei, after he risked his life to save hers, because she knew that Kotaro would be hunted after in the future. X reluctantly decides to help Teppei reach the center of The Area in order to rescue Kotaro, while these events result in the other three Spiritual Guardians, Fou Lafine of the South, Ron of the East, & Hokuto of the North, potentially reconsidering their allegiance to the Machine Empire.
The original B't X anime review I did on December 22, 2010 was one of my earliest, and as such was pretty general, giving only the basic idea of the "Rescue Arc" template that the story utilized, what a "B't" was, and what the "not really friends" dynamic between Teppei & the "Spiritual Guardians" was like; I used "Spirit Generals" back then, but if there's an official translation, I tend to stick with that. I also focused more on how different it was from the other Kurumada anime out there, as Shingo Araki & Michi Himeno were not brought in to do character designs. Therefore, I'll focus more on the elements of the anime that I either vaguely brought up last time, or simply didn't mention. Admittedly, some of it can also be found in my review of the manga from July 5, 2014, but it's been a while since that review, too.
The biggest thing I believe about this series is that, on the whole, it's effectively a deconstruction of Masami Kurumada's own style, which in turn makes it a deconstruction of "traditional" shonen action, as Kurumada's Ring ni Kakero effectively wrote the first-edition book on it. For example, Teppei is introduced as a bit of a cocky, headstrong, & intensely devoted character, wanting nothing more than to rescue Kotaro from the clutches of the Machine Empire. While this makes him similar to the likes of Ryuji Takane & Pegasus Seiya before him, though, his bullheaded behavior doesn't always work out quite the same way as it would for his predecessors, & X's own stubbornness instantly makes for a rough first meeting between our leads. A good example of this would be in how Teppei & X decide to infiltrate The Area, which is by heading to each "Point" that's guarded by its own B't-riding warrior, using the logic that the Point Guards would never work together to defeat our heroes, due to their own prides. While that does makes sense, it also results in Teppei & X getting into more fights than they probably have to in the first place, and when combined with Teppei's "hit them first, ask questions if they're still around" mentality it results in him eventually kind of treating X as nothing more than a talking, flying chariot. Unlike a Cloth from Saint Seiya, which was simply armor that could always be repaired, a B't is pretty much a living being, and while X winds up being willing to go as far as he can for Teppei's sake, it eventually comes at the biggest cost of all; there's good reason why Teppei & X only make it past four Point Guards before hitting a "snag".
Not just that, but Kotaro isn't just some damsel in distress simply waiting to be rescued. He stands defiant against everyone in the Machine Empire from Day 1, whether it's against Major Aramis' attempts to convince him to help out with Rafaello, belittling the Machine Emperor's agent Misha for being a petulant child (which he literally is), or directly going against the orders of Marcello, the warden of the Under-Hell prison beneath The Area for those who try to defy the Empire. Using his brain, Kotaro focuses stringently on mathematically figuring out what Rafaello's weakness is, and his bravery to stand against all odds, along with his general kindness, starts to influence others. Likewise, B't X doesn't follow the old trope of "defeat = friendship", because none of the Spiritual Guardians are actually defeated by Teppei. In turn, none of them ever actually consider Teppei a "friend", instead finding his eventual growth, both in strength & as a man, more of a curiosity that helps encourage them to question their Empire & its goals; they become allies with a common goal, but not much more than that. If anything, Kotaro gets more "friends" can Teppei! Meanwhile, the major reason for Fou, Ron, & Hokuto, plus even Karen five years prior, deciding to see what Teppei is capable of is due to his "radiance". A major thematic point of the series is about "shining bright", even in the darkest of times, with Teppei's inner-strength even eventually being explained as due to him having a "Piece of the Sun" within him; one can assume that Kotaro also has a "Piece" in him, as well. Effectively, to continue off of the deconstruction aspect earlier, B't X shows that Kurumada had altered his message of "What is the path to becoming a 'True Man'?" from one of never giving up, even if you have to risk your life for it, to one of being a shining example of dedication, where even in failure you can inspire others to follow your path because of how earnest you are; you don't always have to win by skill, but instead your will can be enough. At the same time, those who you inspire can also help you grow into a better, more understanding person, which is shown gradually in this series by way of how Teppei & X's relationship evolves from simple partners to true-blue "buddies".
Yes, this is an action series, and what's there is handled very well due to it mixing things up for each fight to some extent & adhering to a strictly serialized storyline, but at the same time this doesn't feel exactly like your standard "shonen action" story, and it's because of these elements that I detailed above. Remember, Kurumada made B't X for Shonen Ace magazine, not Shonen Jump, so he was allowed to break free of the latter's often-utilized standards & traditions.
As mentioned in the original review, this series was directed by Mamoru Hamatsu (Glass Mask , Heroic Legend of Arslan OVAs), who is slightly known for his ability to deliver a sense of classical-style grandeur, making him a bit of a good match for Kurumada's generally romanticized style; B't X was categorized by Kurumada as "Neo Mechanical Romance". Hamatsu was also in charge of series composition, though he never directly wrote a single episode himself. The two writers who had the most to do there were Yoshiyuki Suga, who would go on to become head writer for B't X Neo the following year, & Nobuaki Kishima, who together totaled 17 episodes out of 25. In fact, it's these two men who were behind the majority of the filler utilized, which are honestly rather good & mix in quite well. The first is Episode 10, written by Yasushi Hirano, where Teppei & X come across Dr. Zaji, a scientist (& Raimei no Zaji reference) who managed to escape from Under-Hell & hide out in Hell Valley, which creates sonic winds that mess with B'ts, before encountering Metal Face one last time. After that are Episodes 12 & 13, written by Suga, which deal with Kaos & B't L'Amour, a legendary Empire warrior who retired & simply disappeared years ago; through battle, they teach Teppei the hidden fifth meaning of the word "B't": "Buddy". Finally, Episodes 17 to 19, done by both Suga & Kishima, are technically manga-accurate, but turn Mira, Rai, & Leon, a trio calling themselves the Dark Knights, from a group of no-name, one-shot-killed jobbers into a force to be reckoned with, mainly to stretch out time somewhat. To be honest, they feel like characters Kurumada created in the manga solely so that the anime could expand on them for filler purposes. The idea that the anime stretches things out does make sense, though, if you want to believe the words of others online.
Supposedly (& this is coming from TV Tropes, of all places, so take it with a massive amount of salt), the original plan was for B't X to run for 50 episodes, but TBS/Tokyo Broadcasting System decided to suddenly kill the anime off, due to declining ratings that were apparently happening to television in general around that time, right after the writers introduced a mysterious black version of X, complete with a masked donor. This was meant to result in a massive filler arc that would keep the show running for the year-long run, but with the sudden end the writers had to jump right back into adapting the manga so that it could end on a decent stopping point. Honestly, though, I actually prefer this, and even with the filler the TV series adapts up through the first half of Volume 6 (of 16) at a great pace of roughly one chapter per episode; each volume has four chapters or so. Even if it may not have been what they had planned, Hamatsu & his writing staff managed to make the filler feel like it actually fit into the overall plot, and the spot it stops at is a decent one that lets the effects of a major plot point be felt, but not end with a lull. Also, Masami Kurumada wound up including "Shadow X" in the manga, as he was allegedly a fan of the idea, which allowed the writers to continue including it in Neo, so it's not like the apparent attempt at a giant filler arc was all for naught.
Finally, on a humorous note, I do find it funny how often Teppei returns to his casual wear in the anime. In the manga, Teppei stays in his Battle Gear for the entire remainder of the story after donning it a second time in Volume 1, but in the anime he gets out of it after nearly every battle, resulting in the transformation stock footage being shown a little over ten times across the first 15 episodes alone! You see, stock footage allows for less run time to make new animation for per episode, but it is amusing to see here, specifically, because of how Kurumada precisely avoided that in the manga.
The character designs by Hideyuki Motohashi & Eisaku Inoue, who both also handled animation direction for some episodes, are interesting, mainly because they are arguably more accurate to Masami Kurumada's original style than the more iconic style that Shingo Araki & Michi Himeno brought to the table, & that even applies to the visuals as a whole. More of Kurumada's visual flourishes are kept intact here, like his penchant for giving eyelids & lashes some white marks when closed to indicate light refraction, his old penchant for low-angled viewpoints, & even some of his darker imagery, like those of demons & haunting skeletons; most of these were not kept for Saint Seiya's anime. This was definitely a Motohashi influence, as Inoue had previously worked on Saint Seiya & would later work with Araki & Himeno for Ring ni Kakero 1, & I feel it works to the anime's benefit, as it helps make it look just different enough from Seiya to allow B't X to feel like its own show. I already raved about the music in the original review, so let me just say that my feelings towards it are very much the same today. Akira Senju's score is an excellent mix of orchestral & synth, "Haruka ~Sailing for my Dream~" is still an outstanding OP theme (&, supposedly, was hand-picked by Kurumada himself), "Boku no Ikikata" is a fun ED theme, & the fact that T.M. Revolution's "High Pressure" was forced into the Chinese & Taiwanese airings as a makeshift second OP, likely to cash in on Revolution's burgeoning popularity over there, remains an amusing tidbit of trivia.
The B't X manga was the 20th Anniversary work for Masami Kurumada, & the anime debuted 10 years after Saint Seiya, so it's not exactly a surprise that the original Japanese version features a bit of an "all-star" cast, which I only brought up slightly in the original review. Nobuyuki Hiyama & Jin Horikawa lead it all as Teppei & X, respectively, and they both deliver outstanding performances. Interestingly enough, Horikawa is the only B't voice to not receive any sort of modulation, across both Japanese & English. Alongside them are Nozomu Sasaki as Kotaro, Megumi Ogata as Karen, Keiji Fujiwara as Ron, Kazuya Ichijou as Fou, & Kenyuu Horiuchi as Metal Face, who are all similarly great. The anime also brought in actors who were known more for live-action dramas, like Osamu Sakuta (Hokuto), or for dubbing over Hollywood actors in movies, like Ryuji Mizuno (B't Raido) or Atsuko Yuya (Aramis), and they also deliver memorable performances; for some, like Sakuta, these are their most iconic anime roles. Finally, there's a veritable "who's who" of well known seiyuu voicing the various Point Guards & other minor characters who only appear for a couple of episodes, at most. This includes Kappei Yamaguchi as Camilla, Takehito Koyasu, Sho Hayami, & Kouji Ishii as the Dark Knights, Noriko Hidaka as Maria, Osamu Kobayashi as Kaos, Chafurin as B't Cancer, & Jurouta Kosugi as Demon General Misslim, among many others. Without a doubt, this anime was likely treated as something special back in 1996.
The main thing to take into consideration with the original English dub is that Illumitoon's concept was to act like a fusion of 4Kids & a traditional anime company. The plan was to get the shows to air edited on American television for mainstream audiences, but also offer more traditional anime releases (for the time) on DVD for the hardcore anime fans; the DVD themselves sucked hard, but this was just the concept. Because of that, the original dub does feature some changes, like giving Teppei & Kotaro the nicknames of "Tepp" & "Kit" to make them more palatable for American audiences (similar to what Saban did for Digimon), changing the Machine Empire to "The Dominion", changing to pronunciation of "Beat" to "Bit" (though this could have also been to not create confusion with Beet the Vandel Buster), & there's an original soundtrack by Dave Moran & Nathan M. Johnson that's mixed in with some retained Akira Senju music. If you've never heard what FUNimation's original DBZ dub's music sounded like, as it was done by the same duo (Bruce Faulconer didn't get involved until Season 3), then just imagine a bunch of "butt rock" that's not terrible, but can easily feel a good bit overdone. Oddly enough, though, there are a couple of scenes where Moran & Johnson's music is literally just put on top of Senju's, & it just sounds wrong. Finally, the OP & ED themes are fully replaced in the dubs, though with some odd inconsistency. While the ED is simply replaced with a vocalless version of "Boku no Ikikata", Volume 1 replaced the OP with a vocalless version of "Haruka ~Sailing for my Dream~", while Volume 2 (& I'd imagine the remaining six episodes that were dubbed) replaced that with a completely original instrumental theme song that's intensely generic; see the video above.
As for the voice work itself, recorded at Texas' CRM Studios, it's honestly not bad at all, since it did utilize a lot of known talent from various FUNimation releases. Leading the cast is Eric Vale (Future Trunks in Dragon Ball Z/Kai/Super, Sanji in One Piece), who was also the ADR director for the first three episodes, & he does a great job, with a nice mix of determination, sarcastic wit, & dedication to saving Kotaro. Backing him up is Greg Dulcie (Smoker in One Piece) as X, and while the voice modulation is a bit too overdone in this dub (which applies to all B'ts, really), his deep voice works extremely well for a living robot. Kotaro is voiced by Kevin M. Connolly, who sounds a bit too deep for my own personal tastes, but otherwise is fine. Karen is performed by Stephanie Young, who also sounds fine, but has next to nothing to work with in the episodes I was able to see. Fou (or "Fao", as the dub uses) has the vocal talents of Kent Williams, who's slightly gravelly voice gives the character a bit of a two-sided feel; he's both a man of faith, but also obviously hiding his own demons. Finally, in terms of major characters, Jennifer Green (Alice in The Ancient Magus' Bride) voices Aramis with a bit of a British accent, which sadly sounds a bit too fake (which is sad, because her performance is otherwise good), while Chuck Huber (Android 17 in DBZ/Kai/Super) gives Metal Face a downright Cockney accent, which is simply hilarious every single time he opens his mouth. Seeing as I could only watch the first eight episodes, I have no idea who voiced characters like Ron, Hokuto, or the later Point Guards, nor do I know how their performances went, but I'd imagine they're similarly decent to good.
To be perfectly honest, even with the silly name changes & altered music that tries too hard at times, the original Illumitoon dub is fine. Had this been able to air on TV, I think it could have found a cult fanbase, at the very least.
|Two episodes featuring animation direction by Satoshi Ishino|
change the visuals up highly, looking more like a Masami Obari anime.
Then we have the brand new dub from Sound Cadence, a newer Texas studio that's worked on anime like Rio Rainbow Gate!, video games like Dead Island Epidemic, & the web shows Death Battle & DBX. Unlike Illumitoon's dub, this new one prioritizes being accurate to the original Japanese version, like maintaining all of Akira Senju's soundtrack. Interestingly enough, there is some carry-over from the Illumitoon dub, and I don't just mean because some voice actors returned. I was told by Anime Midstream that the original plan was to simply continue off from where Illumitoon stopped, but were unable to get the rights to include the dub; the use of original music likely created licensing issues. So what Midstream & Sound Cadence wound up doing was simply re-utilize the script from the Illumitoon dub, or at least from the eight episodes that were released on DVD, fix it up by replacing name & terminology changes/mispronunciations, plus removing some of the sillier lines with more accurate ones, & use a brand new cast with it. I'm sure of this, because the new dub for those early episodes feature a lot of the same exact lines as the Illumitoon dub, right down to some ancillary dialogue being the same; in fact, four of the episode titles in the new dub are the exact same as what Illumitoon used. Not just that, but some of the characters (like Aramis & Captain Hook) even have the same style of execution when it comes to accents & the like. Of course, this only applies to the earliest episodes, so once Midstream had to make a brand-new translation it 100% becomes its own thing; even the episode titles are translated more accurately to their original Japanese versions. I actually find this approach amusing, because Anime Midstream has effectively made the Illumitoon dub completely redundant, unless you really want to hear Metal Face with a Cockney accent.
The end result is kind of similar to the original Japanese version by delivering a cast that's a mix of "all-star" voice actors, more recently established names, & some potential up-&-comers. As mentioned, some actors from the original dub did return, and one was even a full-on reprisal! Said reprisal is Eric Vale as Teppei, and he's pretty much just as good as before. Vale is also listed as an associate producer (& co-writer) for this dub, so the anime likely meant a lot to him, & wanted to see it through to the end. As for X, we now have ADR director Jeremy Inman (Android 16 in DBZ/Kai/Super), who was both Crow & the second ADR director in the Illumitoon dub, and he matches up with Vale really well, especially since the modulation is lessened slightly, allowing his natural voice to come through more. Chuck Huber & Kent Williams are the last returning actors, but only via small roles as the giant worm B't Groupie & Teppei's dad, respectively, and they both do a good job; no Cockney accent from Huber, though. Aramis in this dub is voiced by Caitlin Glass, who also delivers a British accent, but this time around it's much more believable, which results in a much better performance overall. Hokuto is performed by Josh Grelle, who also gives the character a deeper voice than one would expect, but not as much as Conolly; otherwise he's also very good. Fou is voiced by J. Michael Tatum, who's known for his love of purple prose, so he actually fits the character extremely well. Compared to the most well-versed cast so far, Ron is voiced by Ian Sinclair, who's only started becoming more known in recent years, but he more than holds his own, and his Bruce Lee-esque kiai isn't bad, either; matches well with Fujiwara's. Finally, Hokuto is performed by Christopher Bevins, who goes for a gruffer voice, almost sounding like Steven Blum at times, but it does grow on you. Alongside them are the likes of Morgan Garret (Karen), Tyson Rinehart (Metal Face), Alison Viktorin (Misha), Mike McFarland (Juggler), Meli Grant (Camilla), Justin Briner (Marcello), & Robert McCollum (Captain Hook), among many others, who all deliver similarly pitch-perfect performances. Without a doubt, this new dub is absolutely stellar, and is up there with anything that the likes of FUNimation & Sentai Filmworks put out, which is amazing considering that Anime Midstream has operated more like a side project for Jimmy Taylor than anything more substantial; if this is only the beginning of the company doing more "regular" releases, then look out.
Still, just watch the clip below & see how something as simple as a change in music can completely change the tone of a scene, even when you have the same actor playing Teppei. It really showcases the difference in style the dubs went for.
Finally, this dub also features some cameos from Team FourStar, as they are now working with Sound Cadence, like for Discotek's upcoming Hells dub. This results in Nick "Lanipator" Landis (Dr. Zaji), Scott "KaiserNeko" Frerichs (B't Bat, plus various nameless scientists & soldiers), & Curtis "Takahata101" Arnott (Misslim) making "appearances" of varying importance, with Landis & Arnott in particular showing off their talents well. This DVD boxset also contains a set of generally enjoyable dub bloopers on each of the five DVDs (there's usually one real standout in each batch), plus a commentary track by Inman & Marissa Lenti (who took over ADR direction for the second half) for the last episode, where they go over things like the Illumitoon dub, how they changed things up for the new dub, "classic anime vs. modern anime", how the new dub moved from Midstream's personal studio to Sound Cadence, the various favors Inman called in to get a bunch of the notable cast, and tons of other inside info; just an outstanding commentary track. Unfortunately, the short interviews with the Japanese cast that were a part of each LD release in Japan were not included, which is unfortunate.
As I said at the beginning, & numerous other times on the blog before, the B't X anime holds a special place in my heart as not just a fan of Masami Kurumada's works, but also as a fan of anime in general. As that fan, I was saddened when I found out how bad Illumitoon's initial DVDs were, I was disheartened when TokyoPop's forum reps told me that "only 8 people bought B't X" & that they were holding bets as to whether or not the last volume would come out, and I had given up all hope after I was told by the head of Discotek at Otakon 2016 that they wouldn't be giving anything by Kurumada a chance anymore, because Saint Seiya (the movies & Lost Canvas) bombed hard for them. That's why I was ecstatic when I heard just after that Otakon about Anime Midstream licensing B't X, because I felt that it was finally going to be given a release by a company that really cared. The fact that it actually became a "Top Seller" at Right Stuf for even a week or two, which never happened with Raijin-Oh, shows that there is a way to market Masami Kurumada to people, and that you don't need to piggyback off of Saint Seiya to do so, either; not once has Anime Midstream or Sound Cadence ever mentioned that series to promote B't X.
Now, sure, there are some things about this release that can be nitpicked, like the subtitles being a little loose with the translation at times (Raijin-Oh had the same thing, however), or the video obviously not having been truly remastered (though that's on Japan not getting a new release since 1997), or the fact that it's housed in a digipak (I know some people care about this)... But none of that matters in the long run for me. The fact of the matter is that B't X, which I feel still holds up outstandingly 22 years later, has been given a complete DVD release that I am happy to finally own, and with a complete English dub that is absolutely fantastic, to boot. Now, since the spine on the digipak set only shows the left half of an image, I am looking forward for the eventual release of B't X Neo, because that's where this anime shows its radiance off the most brilliantly, and I really look forward to seeing how the dub cast handles that outstanding ending.
At the very least, both Inman & Lenti sounded super-excited to move on to Neo in that commentary...